QUEUE up every tune you can think of for a mix tape about school. The Replacements missing the bus to stay cool, The Ramones looking for kicks and chicks, The White Stripes making new friends, The Police and Van Halen leering at students and teachers, Chuck Berry trying to get through classes without getting hassled, The Beach Boys sporting their letterman sweaters to Friday night fights after the football game, Mötley Crüe taking a smoke break in the second-floor lavatory, Nirvana wondering where recess went, Sam Cooke not claiming to be an A student, The Dead Kennedys getting on the honor roll, The Boomtown Rats and Pearl Jam calling in tips on classmates, Pink Floyd not needing no education, Dinah Washington requesting an after-hours tutor, Mission of Burma not not not not not not not not being your academy, The Smiths running from the headmaster, The Runaways waving goodbye to their school days, Al Green and The Kinks wishing they could go back to those happiest days of their lives, Alice Cooper demoing the premises. You could arrange them alphabetically or chronologically or autobiographically. You could arrange them narratively. You could arrange them by a code known to no one, not even yourself, tracks thrown like sticks to divine the past.
ACROSS the street from the diner loomed the town’s two-story Federal-style high school, brickskinned Bridewell, propped up with little more than a pair of whitewashed Doric columns and John Dewey’s dream of progressive education. It could have stood in for a city hall or fire station or police precinct. Maybe it had, maybe it would. Why begrudge buildings their dreams of burnished yesterdays and better tomorrows?
J.’s uncle, near-alumnus of the institution, set himself single-mindedly to one goal: his nephew, capped and gown-wrapped, crossing portable plywood stage to receive parchment proof of release. That the nephew failed should not detract from the admirable effort on the part of the uncle.
IF the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions but we have reason to cool our raging motions our carnal stings our unbitted lusts whereof I take this that you call love to be a figure which when an angle is constructed at the center of the circle is contained by straight lines containing the angle and the circumference cut off by them by furnishing material and financial assistance to the participating countries in such a manner as to aid them through their own individual and concerted efforts to become independent of extraordinary outside economic assistance within the period of operation under this title by a rank that if treated as a division of a genus or subgenus is deemed to be of subgeneric rank for the purposes of une petite secte on est tout miel pour les gens qui en sont on n’a pas assez de dédain pour les gens qui n’en sont pas and on and on and on the hebetudinous tones flowed mechanically from the flapping noisome mouthholes of J.’s teachers. Attention is currency, and they demanded J. pay them his, but he saved that coin for the perimeters of their performances: as the last of their charges filed out the door after the bell sounded, as they sat in an otherwise empty break room and gnawed on sallow sandwiches, as they shambled in worn-down soles through quiescent halls, as they snuck cigarettes or nips in their cars between periods. In the moments they believed themselves unseen, their shoulders slumped and spines drooped, their breath wheezed slow and long and sad through their lips, their eyes filmed over with a concussed glaze. President Carter would have spotted the symptoms of malaise, the crises of confidence common to those who had dutifully followed the directions to a lifetime of happiness only to turn back and discover they had at each turn and bend sacrificed any real chances for happiness that wandered across their paths until they found themselves trapped in versions of their lives neither planned nor hoped for.
Unlike those teachers, J.’s uncle did not believe in happiness and thus assumed himself inoculated from despair. But observing the man, J. saw a kulak with his big barn and pasture, taking orders, serving food, clearing tables. With each step, he carved a threadless labyrinth, Minotaur and Daedalus wrapped in the same flannel straitjacket. And what lay at the maze’s exit? Burnished by self-reflection’s sun, a mirror.
PRANKS provide texture to the Teflon days, the days that threaten to be the same today as the day before as the day after.
J. ordered a double-cheese and sausage pie from the pizza joint across the street that arrived in the middle of his history class. “Spicoli?” the delivery boy asked. “Spicoli?” No one answered. The teacher winged the whole box out an open window, feast for fauna, and returned to his simile likening the battle of Stalingrad to the ’67 Ice Bowl between the Cowboys and Packers.
Before a football pep rally, J. switched out the marching band’s Sousa sheet music with “Corona” in honor of their school mascot, the Minuteman. Only Neal owned Double Nickels on the Dime. She was not amused. The front four agreed that it sounded like the Jackass theme song, but J., lacking cable, could not confirm.
On a bright cold day in April, J. came across a sale for double-bell alarm clocks in Woodbridge. He struck a deal to buy the whole lot, synchronized them to sound at one p.m., snuck into school overnight, and secreted them into desk drawers, lockers, drop ceilings, and air ducts throughout the building. Days like that day, as the countdown ticked away, J. felt himself a damned soul grasping at his last morsel of pleasure. He worried with his thumb the florid key-shaped bruise on the inside of his index digit, tattooed from the effort of winding all the springs. At thirteen hundred hours, J. stopped up his ears with a pair of foam plugs, and the clocks shivered the rust from their innards in a clangorous tocsin, splitting the air into a million little pieces. Students and teachers alike, palms plastered to ears, lurched through the building, seeking the sources of shrieking. The first few discovered were celebrated with triumphant yawps that fizzled into frustration upon the realization that the switch on every clock had been extracted from the casing and the hole soldered shut, rendering them unturnoffable. While the mechanical-minded puzzled over the screaming timepieces, a dim filament bloomed behind Tallboy’s eyes. He grabbed one of the offending clocks from a classmate, brandished it high overhead, and dashed it against the floor. Others quickly followed suit, culminating in a frenzied, gleeful, terrifying mechanical slaughter. Weeks after, they were still stepping on errant gears, dials, and glass. Fugit inreparabile tempus.
THREE o’clock, behind the school, by the bleachers, at the bridge. A proffer, almost but not quite polite, dueling etiquette that even Goethe might recognize. J. never issued one but never turned one down, either. At the appointed hour and place, a supersaturated solution of straggling students precipitated into a crystalline circle. Fight fight fight fight they chanted, for all mobs no matter how modest carry within them the Colosseum.
Sadly, none of those small-town boys knew how to square their shoulders, how to make a fist, how to throw a punch. They swung wild haymakers at the air. They attempted half-remembered wrestling moves from gym class. An exquisitely forged doctor’s note stating J. suffered from phantom limb syndrome released him from those sweat-lacquered confines, so he relied on his predilection for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Fights provided J. relief from himself, briefly banked an inferno of unknown provenance that burned him all his livelong days. Refined the school day to a point. Sped the second hand in a rush and a push. Still, losses and wins alike bought blood and bruises, and neither earned him respite from harassment. Better to elide the whole bad school trip as often as possible and live to spite another day. Still, trouble somehow found J.
ALL roads lead to Rome. J. often trod the path to that sovereign land of school’s empire. Fight? Principal’s office. Skip? Principal’s office. Talk back to teacher? Principal’s office. Rest your head on a pillow of your folded arms and close your eyes? Prriiinnnnccccciiiipppaal’s office. Never sent to the man, only the office, a synechdochial transfer of the power vested in him by Regional School District №12 to the room itself.
Framed portraits of early twentieth-century American presidents and degrees in education — a Bachelor’s from Ohio University and a Master’s from UMass — faced off across an expanse of thin gray fire-resistant carpet. Gray file cabinets scaled the gray walls. A mounted wooden baseball bat lurked behind the chairs reserved for visitors.
On the desktop, a phalanx of canted happy family photographs stood guard between the principal’s eyeline and interlopers. Bronze bookends of the Lincoln Memorial clasped between their seatbacks a leather-bound series. Still sand bellied the bottom of a small hourglass, its ballot cast for eternity outside of time. Painted clay statuettes of a pit bull, a beagle, and a collie hunkered on their haunches and gazed ahead in glazed obeisance. A pewter hound dog stalked a scent across a nearby end table.
J. knew one other person who loved dogs as much as the principal seemed to. Not all who have been betrayed, battered, and broken by people seek refuge in the beatific guilelessness of animals, and not all who surround themselves with pets have logged definitive and unoptimistic conclusions on their own species. But around those who do and those who have, tread gently, for they will expect you to serve as either witness or evidence in their never-ending prosecution of humanity.
Exchanges between the principal and J. followed a tiresome script, save once, when J. interrupted the principal’s lecture about the importance of punctuality or respecting school property or applying himself to interject, “You and my uncle have both perfected that angry-but-really-more-disappointed-than-anything-else face. Practice really does get you to Carnegie Hall.”
Such interruptions usually provoked an increase of volume, inflammation of tone, and escalation of scared-straight rhetoric, but that day, seized perhaps by some Zen paroxysm, the principal simply switched his conversational tracks to J.’s signal. “I’d like to meet him,” he replied.
“Stop by the diner sometime. For a buck fifty, coffee’s on the house.”
“Perhaps we could schedule a time for him to come in.”
“Or you two could go hit a few fungoes.”
“I don’t play.”
“The toothpick threw me,” J. said, gesturing a hitchhiker’s thumb over his shoulder at the bat. “You a big Joe Clark fan? Got a bullhorn in one of your desk drawers?”
“It was my father’s.” The principal hesitated, then continued in an unfamiliar register, one stripped of the functionary, and the answer that followed was addressed to a person rather than a student. “He played for the Black Barons.”
J. bit his lip, nodded once, stared at his hands. After what he deemed a respectful lacuna, J. asked, “Did he know Satchel Paige?”
The principal smiled. “They missed each other by a few years.”
“Why do you keep the bat up there?”
“It’s a reminder.”
The second question shook the principal from his reverie, a hope freely given but unearned that the child sitting across from him had been capable of extrapolating all that was unspoken in the first response. The veil descended, the moment passed. Returned to himself, the principal said in his usual tone, “Just a reminder,” and abruptly — albeit not unkindly — dismissed J. without further remonstrance.
Reflecting on that conversation as he returned to class, J. thought he understood the answer. Much later, J. realized that he would never understand — not with that marrow-deep instinct that presages thought. It was not the principal’s response that lacked but the question itself. A lesson not taught was not always a lesson not learned.